Skinny Water… and Fat Striped Bass by Angelo Peluso
The only sound that disturbed the silence and gently broke our focused concentration was the ever-so-slight rush of water past the fiberglass hull of the skiff.
The boat moved slowly along a large sand flat while we watched for any nervous water or any signs of feeding fish. I was positioned on the casting platform - on point in the bow - while my fishing partner, stood, perched above the rear deck. He set us in forward motion and guided our direction with a push pole.
I would occasionally blind-cast to some fishy looking water that was often defined by subtle changes in the bottom contours. As we moved slowly and quietly across the flat, we encountered a point where an “elbow” formed with the adjacent shoreline.
The poling stopped, and we scanned the water for any subtle or obvious signs of fish. The sluggish outgoing tide continued to carry us along at a turtle’s pace while we cast our flies to weed patches, sand potholes and any other shallow bottom variations that tend to hold fish. As the fly moved between the alternating light and dark bottom, an unmistakable striped form moved from its camouflaged lair to inspect the small, fraudulent crustacean tied to my leader. The fish swam to the fly and I stopped the retrieve. The fish stopped too. We watched the drama continue to unfold as the fish slowly approached the crab fly and then circled it with fins erect and an aggressive body posture. This was a hot fish, totally intent on feeding. Giving the crab a slight twitch was more than this fish could take, and we both knew what would happen next; the fish’s gills flared and the fly was vacuumed in.
The ensuing strip set was vigorous, and the resulting sensation of weight gratifying.
The hooked quarry had nowhere to go but straight away toward the edge of the thin water, where it sensed a deep sanctuary. The getaway wasn’t quite a bonefish run but it was impressive enough, and within a few minutes we had our first flats fish of the day: a stout thirty-inch, fourteen pounds Long Island striped bass.
While some might consider the above scenario to be an exception to more traditional methods of striped bass fishing, this scene often repeats along many areas of northeast coast where access to sand flats offers numerous opportunities.
Those with a passion for fly-fishing and light tackle angling in skinny water, have learned to apply many successful southeastern and gulf coast techniques to this style of northeast fishing. Indeed, productive fishing flats are not only unique to tropical locales.
Similar conditions and structures prevail throughout the entire northeast.
A number of enterprising northeast captains, guides and anglers have explored and developed that potential for quite some time, opening up an entirely new world of fly-fishing and light tackle angling that has been commonplace to our southeastern brethren.
The arrival of flats fishing to the northeast occurred not surprisingly during the early 1990s, concurrent with the resurgence of striper stocks throughout the mid-Atlantic and northeast regions of the country. Through the foresight and innovation of those Long Island fly-fishing guides - many of whom also guide throughout the southeast and gulf coast in the winter months - skinny water fishing for striped bass took hold. Long Island is a prime northeast example of this transformation.
All of Long Island is fair game for this form of angling, from the western reaches of the south shore, to the extreme east ends of the Island, and many north shore areas of the Long Island Sound. Specific to Long Island, one of the first captains to explore and develop this form of angling was Captain Paul Dixon.
From May until late August Captain Dixon can often be found guiding fly and light tackle anglers to some superb sight fishing on the clear flats around Easthampton and Gardiner’s Island Out on the North Fork of the Island the legendary Captain Joe Blados blazed a trail as that area’s premier flats and sight fishing pioneer. Captain Joe is also the renowned creator of the world-famous Crease Fly. During the spring and early summer months one can find Captain Blados on his Maverick flats boats perched atop the poling platform. Joe is a traditionalist when it comes to his flats fishing. Like most of the northeast captains, Blados prefers to propel his boat along the flats with the aid of a fiberglass push pole. The process of poling a boat allows for a stealthy approach to feeding and cruising striped bass.
The pole is also used to stakeout – secure the boat in place – once bass are located. Contemporary Power Poles have somewhat replaced the traditional methods of staking out. Regardless of the means and manner employed, this technique is especially helpful when cruising stripers are encountered. If a boat’s forward progress cannot be slowed when bass are first seen, the boat’s momentum will often overtake the fish, sending bass fleeing off the flat. Other guides opt for the use of an electric troll motor, yet this is often viewed as a somewhat less stealthy approach. Propeller rotation can create underwater disturbance that will cause bass to veer way. Regardless of the techniques used, the northeast skinny water scene is no different than one might encounter on a flat in the Florida Keys or along a stretch of coastal Louisiana. From New Jersey to Maine, opportunities abound for skinny water saltwater fly fishing.
The Long Island flats fishing experience is not only an East End and South Shore scenario. There are North Shore locations that offer the same challenges and fishing opportunities. Many of the harbors and backwaters off the Long Island Sound hold various forms of suitable flats structure with one of the largest being within the boundaries of the central Sound.
Many other smaller locations are scattered about the entire North Shore. It is a “seek and you shall find” situation. In addition to the extreme east ends of the Island with areas like Fisher’s, Gardiner’s and Plum Islands, the South Shore also has significant potential for this form of fly-fishing and light tackle angling. One can find suitable areas from Jamaica Bay to the west, to the bays and backwaters of the central south shore, especially in the area of the Great South Bay and the backwaters off Moriches Inlet. The Peconic Bay is another area where skinny water flats opportunities abound. The fact of the matter is that much of the Island still has areas that are waiting to be explored. Some of the most productive Long Island flats are less than the length of a good field goal.
Northeast Skinny Water is More than Just Shallow
Many Northeast anglers and even a number of captains new to the northeast flats game equate skinny or thin water with water that is simply shallow. True northeast flats follow much the same pattern as those of the Southeast and Gulf Coast regions. Skinny water is not merely the low edge of a channel or the portion of water that comprises the wash off a beach. Neither is it the taking of stripers from weed-lines and shorelines unless those locations are adjacent to a well-defined “flat.”
Catching a fish in shallow water does not automatically suggest that you caught a “skinny” water flats fish. Northeast skinny water is technically defined as that which is part of a feeding flat, an expanse of very lean water used by game fish as a feeding plateau, a formation where fish can hunt or root out food and then escape to a deeper safe haven. This type of water can be but ankle-deep or range to a few feet in depth, and is usually also associated with traditional sight fishing. The most productive flats more often than not afford ready access to deeper water; fish move up onto the flat to feed and exit to the security of the surrounding depths.
Deepwater access is also a used for defensive purposes. Since most fish sense vulnerability when feeding on a flat, a residual imprint from when they were fry, the security of an escape route is an essential feature of all productive northern flats.
Flats can be quite large or they can be much smaller and on a scale of but fifty to one hundred yards in length. Some Long Island flats that I have fished are relatively small and don’t hold legions of fish, yet all can be quite productive during certain periods of the tide or season.
While classic flats fishing is most always identified with tropical or southerly locations and with destinations like the Keys, Yucatan, Belize, the Bahamas, the Seychelles and so on, some of Long Island’s flats rank right up there in terms of fish-generating potential.
A number of years back I explored a small sand flat over the course of many outings before unlocking its secret. Once the relationship between season, tide and crab swarms was discovered that tiny flat began to yield what has amounted over the years to literally hundreds of school-sized striped bass.
One of the key elements for Long Island style flats fishing is clear water. You want to see the fish that you are casting to. Sunny days are a critical factor since they enhance the angler’s ability to spot the often difficult-to-discern forms of cruising or stationary fish. Days that have mild winds, which do not create too much sight distortion from wave activity, are also preferred. The combination of bright, sunny days, clear water and the ephemeral images of fish make polarized sunglasses an essential piece of fishing equipment.
A Typical Northeast Flats Scenario
Fishing northeast flats is not something one does from a deep-V center-console boat. Recognizing yet again that stealth is a critical element of successful flats fishing, very shallow draft boats are the rule. Long Island anglers have adapted traditional flats boats to this task as well as hybrid hulls like bay boats. Access to flats can also be effectively achieved with a kayak. A ‘yak is a personal choice of mine that I use primarily as a conveyance to get to where I like to wade. Since the flats that I fish are very small that is about the only way that you can approach them without spooking any fish that might be in a feeding mood.
The best of the skinny water guides will always approach a flat quietly, often cutting the main engine well before reaching the flat. Then he or she will move the boat onto the flat with either a pole or electric trolling motors. A typical tactic is to first work the peripheral edges of the flat. Stripers will habitually cruise that seam area between the shallow water of the flat and the deeper perimeter water.
Once on the flat, the boat can either be quietly moved to an area where fish are known to concentrate, or maneuvered in some well-defined searching pattern. Tide movements make a big difference. Bass will locate on different portions of a flat during the various tide phases. When fishing a flat for the first few times it is beneficial to work the area as thoroughly as possible in some orderly pattern since you never know where you might bump some bass. When fish-holding areas are located, such as pot-hole, grass or mussel beds, or changes in the bottom contours and structure, the boat is either moved slowly and quietly through those areas or staked-out to enable the angler to carefully prospect the location.
You also want to keep hull slap to a minimum since those reverberations will send fish fleeing in a heartbeat.
The ability to spot bass on a flat in time to make an effective presentation of a fly or lure is the most critical element of this game and takes some getting used to.
All too often the untrained eye misses fish that are either moving along the flat or just cruising feet from the boat. Learn how to spot not only the entire fish form but also pieces and parts of the whole, much like whitetail deer hunters do in thick cover. Bass over sandy bottoms present distinctive shapes but fish in grassy or weedy areas can appear as if camouflaged.
Feeding fish will usually travel about the flat searching out a meal or remain positioned in a feeding lane waiting for food to come to them. Striped bass will often feed this way and orient to a favored holding area. I have watched stripers root sand eels at dusk in the same manner that redfish or bonefish will root out small crustaceans, crabs and baitfish. If the water is skinny enough you can even see their back and exposed tails. When that happens, try to maintain composure and make the casts count!
Although striped bass are the primary targets of Long Island flats anglers some other interesting surprises await those who spend time on skinny waters of the northeast. I have had bluefish, Atlantic bonito and little tunny move into water that was no more than calf-deep. Hook one of those pelagic speedsters in thin H20 and hang on for the ride of your life. Long Island flats fishing is an ideal scenario for fly and light tackle anglers. Match your tackle to the available species and predominant size range of fish and you are sure to enjoy yourself.
Patience Pays Dividends
I recall a small flat I would fish that is located within a bay which is part of the Long Island Sound. The characteristics of that flat were ideal, with deep water in close proximity. The flat is a couple of hundred yards long, with a sand and gravel/pebbled bottom. Some boulders and other forms of submerged structure that attract bait rim the outer edges of the flat. I wade there, and fish from both a kayak and a small boat. Initially, the results of my efforts were disappointing. A few fish here and there came to hand, but nothing that I would consider as a great find. I was having trouble figuring out the flat but my instincts told me that this place had more potential than I was experiencing. Therefore, I made it a habit of visiting this flat often. Eventually, there was “perfect storm” convergence of key variables that help solve the puzzle and relinquish the secrets of this flat. Phase of tide, specific bait availability, tine of day and weather/wind all worked in concert to open a window of opportunity. And when that happened, an enlightening moment occurred, resulting in some very consistent fishing from that point forward. One of the keys was the mass movement of Asian and green crabs during a very specific period of the tide. That revelation changed my techniques and tactics for fishing this area, and resulted in many successful outings. Understanding the dynamics of a flat take patience and time on the water. But the outcome is well worth the effort expended. Don’t get discouraged if your initial forays onto the flats are produce less than desired results. Keep at it until you discover what makes the flat come alive.
Tools of the Game
For most northeast flats and skinny water applications, rods rated between 8 and 10 weight are more than adequate to get the job done. You can’t go wrong with 9x9 fast tip rod paired with a balanced large arbor reel. Floating or slow-sinking intermediate lines work well. If you are fishing from a boat, it pays to keep two outfits rigged, each with one of those recommended line types. For most fishing situation a 6-foot length of fluorocarbon leader should be adequate. If the fish are extra spooky on the flat, extend that length to 8 or 9 feet. A wide array of flies can fit the bill for fishing skinny water. Patterns should replicate the prevailing baitfish and other bait forms that frequent the flat. In the northeast that means Atlantic spearing, peanut bunker; sand eels, finger mullet, anchovies and a variety of crustaceans. I’ve enjoyed a lot of skinny water success with hybrid-style creature flies that imitate a range of crabs and crustaceans.
When fishing from the deck of a boat, it is advantageous to use a stripping bucket or installed synthetic and flexible “fingers” that aid in the prevention of line tangling. Fingered mats are also used for this purpose. When wade fishing, a stripping basket can prove invaluable.
Other gear for flats- style fishing that are essential include polarized sun glasses and sun protection in the form of lightweight gloves, UV resistant shirts and pants, buffs and brimmed hats. Sunscreen should also be applied as appropriate for the conditions.
- by Angelo Peluso
This book is the perfect combination of art and practicality. Gorgeous Gyotaku prints highlight the artistry in the fly photography, making the book as beautiful as it is informative.
The year-round fly-fishing opportunities in the flats, inshore, and off-shore waters of the Southeast and Gulf Coast re world-class. As are the numerous game fish you will encounter: bonefish, tarpon, permit, pompano, sailfish and sharks, to name just a few. That’s a lot of water types and a lot of fish species, so where do you start?
After years of research, Peluso has compiled the go-to flies from guides, captains, fly shop owners, local club members, avid anglers…in short, the experts in Southeast and Gulf Coast waters. The flies in this book are proven fish-catchers from the people whose jobs depend on your successful Southeast fishing adventure! Hundreds of patterns are shared as well as techniques and tips for using them that will give you the upper hand on these wily and wary opponents.
8.5 x 11 Inches, 160 Pages, All Color